Understanding the deeper meanings of rasa-lila.
Sarat-pürnima is the first day of the month of Kartika (Oct.-Nov.). It is on this night that Lord Krsna enacts His rasa-lila in Vrndavana. The rasa-lila is the ultimate culmination of spiritual realization. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Sukadeva Gosvami, Rüpa Gosvami, Raghunatha Dasa Gosvami, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, the greatest of all sannyasis, and pure renunciants who have absolutely no interest in sensual enjoyment worship the five chapters of Srimad-Bhagavatam explaining this pastime as the revelation of the highest and purest spiritual love. It is the crest jewel, most precious, most elevated of all the pastimes of the Lord.
The Supreme Love
On this night, which is glorified by great personalities as the most beautiful night of the year, the sweet fragrance of jasmine and lotus flowers was permeating the atmosphere. The full moon rose. It had a golden reddish color and it illuminated all the directions, especially the western horizon, with a beautiful shade resembling kumkum. Krsna was born in the lunar dynasty, and so the moon was very anxious to assist the Lord. By His yoga-maya potency, Krsna created the most pleasing atmosphere surcharged with enchanting beauty, the atmosphere of the spiritual world.
Within Krsna’s heart arose the great desire to satisfy the hearts of His most beloved devotees. At that time on the bank of Yamuna, under the holy Vamsivata tree, Krsna played the fifth note of His flute. The essence of the love of His heart came through His lips into the holes of the flute and formed into a beautiful song. It filled the atmosphere, entered the gopis’ ears, through their ears it entered into their hearts, and within their hearts it plundered the treasure of their entire consciousness. The song of Krsna’s flute stole the hearts of the gopis. They were in such absorbed state of remembering Krsna, wanting to please Krsna through their services that they abandoned whatever they were doing. Some were milking cows, some were boiling milk, others were serving husbands or parents, some were serving prasada or eating prasada, some were bathing, some were putting on their clothes or their ornaments, but immediately without any consideration they left their homes; they forgot everything except Krsna. But Krsna is so kind. He did not want them to get in trouble, so He arranged by His yoga-maya potency to make duplicate material forms of each gopi to stay home. Their spiritual bodies went into the forest but their family members thought that they changed their mind and stayed at home because there was an illusory form of them that remained at home.
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the six Gosvamis of Vrndavana declare that there is no love purer than that of the gopis’ of Vrndavana. Their hearts are not contaminated by even the slightest trace of selfish desires.
Why do the greatest acaryas in the renounced order of life consider that the gopis represent the perfection of renunciation? This is a very subtle but important subject. The gopis of Vrndavana exhibited complete renunciation, they are the supreme embodiments of vairagya. For the pleasure and service of Krsna they were willing to detach themselves from those forms of love that are most difficult to ever forget in this world. They were willing to leave the securities of their homes, with a good possibility that they would never be allowed back because the elders were forbidding them to leave. Their reputation, the Vedic rules and regulations, the attachment of family members, the security of a home, going into the darkness of the forest how would they survive? But their love was so deep and so pure that not a single gopi even considered these things for a moment. They forgot everything except their burning desire to serve Krsna and please Krsna. They surrendered their body, mind, words, life and soul only for the satisfaction of Krsna. His beautiful smile, His wonderful three-fold bending form, His extraordinary pastimes everything manifested within their hearts through the sound of His flute.
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah
Krsna tells us that we should abandon all varieties of dharma and surrender to Him. “I will protect you from all sinful reactions,” He says. “Do not fear.”
To put aside our desires for sense gratification for a higher purpose, for self-realization that is tapasya. To actually be willing to do that is surrender. The gopis gave up everything. The question or thought of sense gratification would never even enter their hearts. They had already given their hearts wholesale in love for Krsna. Their absorption was single-minded; their renunciation was out of pure love.
WHO ARE THE GOPIS?
There are different categories of gopis. Some are nitya-siddhas, who descended from the spiritual world of Goloka in order to assist the Lord in His pastimes. These gopis met with no problem when they went to meet Krsna. But there were others. Some of them, by the arrangement of yoga-maya, were forcibly locked in rooms so that they couldn’t escape. They had such longing and intense feeling that they could do nothing but meditate in the core of their heart on meeting Krsna and giving pleasure to Him. These gopis were personified Vedas, who longed to have intimate relationships with Krsna. They were allowed to take birth in Vrndavana to completely purify themselves in the association of other gopis.
Some gopis were the sages in Danòakaranya forest who met Lord Rama during His exile. They were all longing to have a loving relationship with Rama. But in that incarnation, Sri Rama would only have such a relationship with one person Sita. Therefore, He gave them the benediction that when He appeared as Lord Krsna on the earth, they would also reappear as gopis to enjoy this relationship.
Some gopis, although pure devotees of the Lord, had not yet achieved the absolute pure level of the nitya-siddha gopis. These gopis were not allowed to see Krsna that night. They were locked in rooms. Due to the intensity of the separation, they were on the verge of death. This overwhelming desire to be with Krsna burned to ashes any tinge of material contamination that may have been in their hearts. They then entered into the realm of the nitya-siddha gopis.
Krsna is the basis of all love
The gopis came to Vamsivata, and there with hearts anticipating a night of unalloyed service to the Supreme Lord, offered their hearts to Krsna. Krsna welcomed them very respectfully with deep love. After welcoming them Lord Krsna wanted to test them. He said, “My dear gopis, why have you come in the middle of the night? It is not appropriate for chaste young ladies like you to leave your fathers, brothers, husbands to meet another man in the forest. Besides that it’s very dangerous; there is no security here. It is very dark, you should go home. The gopis began to weep, “We have given our hearts to You; we have abandoned everything only for You. Please smile upon us. Do not send us away.” The gopis gave so many heartfelt arguments; one was, “Krsna, You are in everyone’s heart. You are the source of life for every living being. If You leave a person’s heart, all that is left is a dead corpse and no one loves dead corpses. They put them in fire or bury them underground. In truth, my dear Lord, it is Your presence within the person’s heart that makes them lovable.”
The gopis’ words help us understand that the actual attractive quality in the world is the presence of Krsna. Because Krsna is in the heart of our child, we love our child. Because Krsna is in the heart of our mother and father, we love them. It is actually Krsna that we love. In the romantic relationship between a husband and wife, the basis of love is the presence of Krsna within themselves. Because Krsna is all-attractive and because we are all part of Krsna, it is that attractive quality of Krsna that attracts people to each other.
The only person we ever love is Krsna. Unfortunately because we do not understand Krsna in truth, our love is steeped in ignorance and therefore we don’t taste the sweetness of transcendental ecstasy in our loving relationship in this world. If you learn how to love Krsna then you will have loving relationship with everybody in this world, because you will see and reciprocate with Krsna in their hearts. This is love.
The culmination of this pastime is so beautiful. Krsna is bhakta-vatsala. He is so gracious to His devotees because bhakti conquers Krsna. Krsna is the Supreme Absolute Truth, the controller of all controllers. But Krsna is controlled by the love of His devotees. That is why He is Rasaraja. He feels such a debt to those who surrender to love Him that Krsna feels unable to repay. That is the nature of His love.
Krsna then performed the topmost spiritual pastime of rasa-lila on the banks of Yamuna and through the forest of Vrajabhümi with the gopis. He danced with them throughout the night and just to fulfill the gopis’ desire to serve Him with love, Krsna extended one night to be an entire night of Lord Brahma. Who else can reciprocate with our love in that way?
At the time of the rasa-lila Sri Krsna, Syamasundara, was only eight years old. At the age of eight, such a conjugal relationship, even from the material point of view, is in perfect innocence. There cannot be lust in an eight-year-old. In the rasa-lila, Krsna, who is sac-cid-ananda-vigraha, whose form is eternity, knowledge, and bliss, was reciprocating pastimes of pure love with the gopis who were in their spiritual forms. The gopis did not approach Krsna with material bodies. They were in their original, spiritual pure forms where the modes of material nature have no access. So from the material and from the spiritual point of view, it was a perfectly pure exchange of love.
Krsna’s pastimes are not just meant for entertainment; they are meant for purification. If the rasa-lila is understood according to the teachings of the great saints, there is great knowledge that we can practically apply to our lives. That is why Srila Prabhupada and all of the great acaryas in our sampradaya always give a commentary while translating the Vedic literature, because without that commentary you don’t understand them in their proper spirit or content.
The rasa-lila is very instructive. Although the gopis put aside all material attachment for the pleasure of Krsna, when they went back to their homes, they performed all their responsibilities. They loved their children, husbands, parents because they felt and experienced Krsna in their hearts. That means Krsna’s service is the unifying factor of all of our relationships. Whatever our activities in this world may be, they are perfect if we put Krsna in the center. The perfect marriage is when the husband and the wife simply exist together for the pleasure and the loving service of Krsna. If they do this, they will have perfect respect, compassion, and sympathy for one another because they won’t see each other as objects of enjoyment but as the sacred property of God. The gopis teach the householders the perfect household lives, and the gopis also teach sannyasis, the perfect sannyasa life.
If you hear properly the beautiful stories of Krsna-lila, you will be inspired to surrender to Krsna. You will be inspired to do something for the pleasure of Krsna and His devotees. If this mood is absent, then you are not hearing properly or it’s not being presented properly. We are not meant to enjoy, we are meant to be enjoyed, enjoyed by Krsna. That is the meaning of rasa-lila sarat-pürnima, the night when everyone simply gives up all their ego, all their attachments for the purpose of being enjoyed by Krsna.
Lord Caitanya, who was Krsna Himself, appeared in the guise of a devotee to teach us how to love, how to give pleasure, how to be enjoyed by God. And the most simple and sublime of all processes, the foundation on which we can build our devotion and our love, is the chanting of the holy name: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This chanting is the offering of our hearts, an offering of our love, an offering of our life for the pleasure of Krsna.
And Krsna as Lord Caitanya has taught:
trnad api sunicena
taror api sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada harih
(Sri Siksastaka, Text 3)
The rasa-lila is about this principle. Lord Caitanya says, “If we have pure love then we are humble like a blade of grass, tolerant like a tree, ready to offer all respect to others and expect none in return. Our love is selfless.”
na dhanam na janam na sundarim
kavitam va jagad-isa kamaye
mama janmani janmanisvare
bhavatad bhaktir ahaituki tvayi
(Sri Siksastaka Text 4)
Radharani is speaking this verse in the Siksastaka. “I don’t want wealth, I don’t want anything, I only want to serve You Krsna, to please You Krsna.” The process of achieving that perfection is to strive to be prideless in our chanting of the holy names. You cannot enter into the rasa-lila through mental gymnastics or through intellectual memorization of slokas. It is only possible when we feel ourselves so humble, so much in need that we cry out to Krsna like a baby crying for its mother.
On this day, we pray for pure devotional service. We pray to follow in the footsteps of those Vaisnavas who are following in the footsteps of the gopis no selfishness, no false ego, no separate interest, no agenda, except the aspiration to be the servant of the servant of the servant. To try to imitate the gopis and meditate on their activities in their eternal forms is premature for a person who still has false ego. We want to be the servant of the servant of the servant of the gopis by following their principles of having a pure heart of selfless surrender, focused in absorption on the pleasure of Krsna. What pleases Krsna the most is service to His devotees. To the degree our hearts become pure, we will derive the ultimate satisfaction to see Krsna enjoying His pastimes with Srimati Radharani. At that stage, we want nothing else.
Radhanatha Swami is a guru and GBC in ISKCON.